Friday, August 13, 2010

Education At the Time of Great Change

Over last one year, I have had the opportunity to think, read and discuss about how technology will change education. I started from the point that technology will completely transform education: Something like everything will be online in a few years from now. And, then, I met a few people who were of the opposite persuasion, that technology may change things on surface, like a smartboard in the class, but the tutor would remain central to the education experience.

The truth is, it will be somewhat in between. Education has been slower than other industries, for example transportation, to respond to technological change. But it has still changed. The great change in education would have come about five hundred years ago with the printed book; again about hundred years back with printed photo; and around the same time, with sound recording. However, each one of these were only small steps in transforming education - from a pursuit of privileged few to a basic requirement of modern life - leading towards an ultimate tipping point of social transformation.

While transportation may have changed quite dramatically with automobile, and later with air travel, the change in education was somewhat less dramatic. A teacher still controls the classroom. Home tasks are given. Small punishments are still handed out for delinquencies. Expulsion and failure remain central to its management. But this has less to do with the 'timeless' nature of education, and more because of the nature of technological change. Dan Airley makes the point that when it comes to applying technology to further our physical capabilities, like the ability to move with great speed, we have excelled; but the same is not true about using technology to extend our cognitive capabilities. Largely, this is due to the overriding obsession about preserving the existing social balance, or power structure, and the fact that we would rather have people not know or think more in order to preserve our ways of life. That way, education is unlike transportation; we want to limit change in matters of education, not the other way round.


But despite our great desire to maintain the status quo, technologies in the cognitive domain are becoming more powerful. This is an immutable aspect of technological change: That it can seldom be boxed. While technologies develop within the context of social power relations, there inevitably comes a time when these technologies cross a Frankenstein threshold, first threatening and then inevitably altering its master, the social framework which made them. And, to be sure, this is not a completely exogenous process - technologies, unlike trees, don't just grow themselves. Human beings have the tendency of growing in baby steps, changing things even when they collectively don't want to, and the story of technological progress is almost always scripted by our playful inventiveness. In a way, the whole of human history can be seen as a playful exercise, of human freedom and triumph of individual curiosity over collective frigidity. I believe education as an activity, helped by the state of education technology, has reached such a threshold.


Indeed, Bill Gates says that in the video I posted. He believes that the pace of change will be slower in K12 than in the community college sector. There is another possibility to consider: As For-Profit education thrives, the education options will soon become limited to the subjects with greater pay-off, and specialist, niche subjects may become too expensive and only available on the virtual mode. Art History is a good place to start: Anyone?


In this model, technology-based education is not changing the sector. It is only improving it, as textbooks and standardized curriculum changed education in line with the mass participation in the industry after the industrial revolution. But we seem to be approaching a tipping point: A point where the economics of education is broken, the pace of social change brings millions knocking at the door, and the rate of technological progress alter the media consumption habits and expectations in favour of a different kind of education. Yes. the Frankenstein threshold has arrived, and if things don't change, it will be changed.

I shall end in an optimistic note. Change is good, because life is about change. Not changing is going against the rules of nature. The time for change in education has arrived.



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